Before rural delivery began in 1902, people in rural areas had to pick up their mail at their local post office. This was not always convenient, and in bad weather, mail could be delayed for weeks.
John Wanamaker was the Postmaster General from 1889 until 1893. When a farmer complained to him that city folks had “fancy” mail service while country folks had to pick up their mail, Wanamaker began to address that inequity. After all, country folks paid the same price for a postage stamp as city folks.
Wanamaker thought that rural mail delivery would improve the lives of rural folks and expand business opportunities. He proposed free rural mail delivery, but Congress balked at the six-million-dollar price tag. As a compromise, Wannamaker suggested a pilot program that would determine if his plan was feasible. Congress thought even $100,000 for that was too much, but in the end, $10,000 was allocated.
In 1893, Wilson Bissell succeeded Wanamaker as Postmaster General. Instead of offering rural free delivery, he proposed adding more post offices. The next postmaster, William Wilson, didn’t think Wanamaker’s plan for rural delivery was practical, but he was willing to test it out.
West Virginia was the first state to offer rural free delivery in 1896. By the following year the Post Office was operating forty-four routes in twenty-nine states. The Post Office received thousands of petitions from rural customers asking for the service. The National Grange, the National Farmers’ Congress, and the State Farmers’ Alliance threw support behind nationwide delivery. In 1898, Wahpeton became the first North Dakota post office to offer rural delivery, and 1902, it became available nationwide.
There was a learning curve for some. On this date in 1908, the Golden Valley Chronicle printed a letter from the postmaster in Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. The postmaster had received a complaint from a customer about delayed delivery. He explained that rural mail delivery was not always an easy matter. In fact, he had been looking for the customer for several weeks. The man had a homestead, but had not put up a mailbox. Gilbert wrote: “I am not hunting Mr. Drewnack with a letter in my pocket.” He suggested that Drewnack put up a mailbox like everybody else.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Golden Valley Chronicle. “Offered Another Job.” Beach ND. 10/16/1908. Page 1.
United States Postal Service. “Rural Free Delivery.” https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/rural-free-delivery.htm Accessed 9/16/2020.